On June 9, 2020, the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas vacated a $1.4 billion default judgment previously entered against Rafael Dario Ramirez Carreno, Venezuela's former oil minister, in a case alleging that Ramirez had violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) by engaging in a scheme to solicit bribes.
The case arose in February 2018, when Harvest Natural Resources, Inc. (Harvest), a Houston-based energy company, sued Ramirez and others, alleging that Ramirez had demanded bribes in exchange for Venezuelan government approval of two deals in 2013 and 2014 that would have allowed Harvest to sell its Venezuelan assets to an Indonesian entity. Harvest asserted that, because it had refused to pay these bribes, it was not able to receive approval to sell off its Venezuelan assets until 2016 (after Ramirez had left his position), at a price $470 less than the original 2013 and 2014 deals. The court entered a default judgment against Ramirez in December 2018 after Ramirez, whose whereabouts are unknown, failed to respond or take any steps to defend himself in the lawsuit. As a result, in February of 2019, the court awarded Harvest a final default judgment for treble damages totaling approximately $1.4 billion.
Ramirez, who asserts he is now in hiding from the Venezuelan government, subsequently filed a motion to dismiss in June 2019, requesting that the court set aside the default judgment and dismiss the case. Ramirez argued, among other things, that the 2016 share purchase agreement governing Harvest’s asset sales contained a provision waiving all claims against Venezuelan officials, and that Ramirez was acting in his capacity as a government official in connection with any “purported bribe request[s].” Harvest argued that soliciting bribes exceeded Ramirez’s authority, and that he instead engaged in the solicitation in his personal capacity.
In its June 9 opinion, the court vacated the default judgment, finding that Ramirez’s default was not willful because he legitimately thought he had not been served. The court also found that both parties’ interpretations of the 2016 share purchase agreement were plausible, declined to dismiss the case, and set a status conference for June 25 to discuss scheduling.